Athens, Ga – Georgia and Ohio State are two energy programs that have been watching each other from a distance for the past few years, vying for each other in the recruiting rankings, seeing Justin Fields move from program to program, but for all that time not meeting on the same playing field. football.
That changes in this year’s College Football playoff semifinals, as they face off in the Peach Bowl on December 31. It’s the game that for a while seemed destined for the championship but instead is going to be an opportunity to get there. A lot of analysis awaits the marquee match, but here are some preliminary thoughts from Georgia’s corner:
Did Georgia get a crude deal?
Many people, including those not given the plot idea, will always assume that the playoff selection committee members made sure that a Michigan-Ohio State semifinal rematch did not set up. The result was that top seed Georgia ended up with what is seen as a tougher game (than the Michigan-TCU game) against fourth seed Ohio State.
However, committee chair Boo Corrigan came armed with the data points when asked about them on Sunday:
“When you look at TCU, it’s 6-1 on teams over . 500, 2-1 against ranked teams,” he said. “Ohio State had good wins over Penn State and Notre Dame, and played Michigan close to three-quarters of the game, but at the end of the day, we’re back at TCU, and there was nothing that happened during that game against Kansas State (in the Big 12 championship game) that we didn’t think It kept them out of third place.”
masked? Not right. But it’s also a huge gap between a California State University resume and an Ohio State resume. It’s just the brand name and perceived talent base that makes Ohio State look like a much better team.
Furthermore, Georgia and Michigan are not miles apart on their resumes. Both are undefeated. Michigan has the most impressive win (at Ohio State) while Georgia has the most wins over ranked teams (five to two).
So it almost feels like a split-team situation: Michigan gets (maybe) the easier game, but Georgia plays primarily home. Speaking of which…
The habitat factor will be real but not decisive
This will be Georgia’s third time in four months that they have played at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, but Georgia will almost certainly not have the crowd-dominant division the first two times. Oregon had a lot to come, and LSU fans saw their enthusiasm dwindle at being out of the playoff chase.
Still, Ohio State will get a guaranteed allotment — it was 12,500 for Michigan last year in the Peach Bowl — and its fans will likely hit the secondary market hard, considering the stakes of the game.
However, Georgia should have the majority of the audience, it’s just a matter of how much. And you will know the pitch and be comfortable there.
“You’re playing the National Champions in their own backyard. It’s going to take everything we have to win this game,” said Ohio State coach Ryan Day, later explaining that he’s not complaining. “When you get to that point in the season, that’s what you have to do. You will be in this electric atmosphere. If you asked me at the start of the season, you would have played Georgia in the Peach Bowl in the National Semifinals, of course, you would have cut off your right arm to get that chance.”
Well, maybe not literally.
For his part, Kirby Smart noted that in Georgia’s previous two semifinal outings, it has traveled to Los Angeles and Miami. This happened to be the year Atlanta was in the semifinals. Smart also went a little overboard with Norman Dale on the Zoom call.
“The court is exactly the same length as any other field we play on,” Smart said.
By reputation, this is an exciting matchup between Ohio State’s offense and Georgia’s defense. Peach Bowl president Gary Stockan noted on Sunday that Ohio State had the second-ranked scoring offense in the nation and Georgia had the second-ranked scoring defense.
But it would be a bit simplistic to look at it this way. For one thing, the Georgia defense is coming off a game in which it gave up over 500 yards of passing to LSU. It was an anomaly — Georgia entered the game ranked first in the SEC in pass defense — but it gave Smart a talking point over the next few weeks.
“We can’t play defense the way we did last night, or we wouldn’t be champions of any kind,” Smart said.
Georgia’s offense, of course, put up 50 points in the same game, and that was the second most they’ve scored this season. The Bulldogs are second in the SEC in yards per game, behind only Tennessee, and against the five ranked teams they faced, they scored 49 (Oregon), 48 (South Carolina), 27 (Tennessee in a game where rain hit in the second half), 45 (Mississippi State) and 50 (LSU).
Ohio State, meanwhile, looked decidedly weak on defense against Michigan. But the Buckeyes still rank 18th nationally in defensive yards per game and 13th in defensive scoring. They’re not perfect—ninth in the Big Ten in pass defense—but that’s not quite Southern California’s defense either.
Last year’s Georgia team “had a different state of mind than our team has now,” Smart told his team Sunday. The point was clear: Last year’s team was emotionally driven to lose the SEC Championship, while this year’s team needed to make sure that being 13-0 didn’t lead to any complacency.
Smart also noted that Ohio State feels differently. Critics might say the Buckeyes slumped in playoff play, but they came away losing and thus humiliated. This is similar to when Alabama entered the 2017 playoffs, and look how that turned out.
“With Ohio State, there is a breath of fresh air of opportunity,” Smart said. “The excitement that it provides and the energy, it feels like a boost of momentum that we have to understand, and we have to be able to match that and understand that there’s a part of that that you have to know.”
This will be difficult for Georgia
Those two programs have only met once in history, and that was 29 years ago, but Smart has watched the Buckeyes over the past decade: the 2014 CFP Semifinals when he was at Alabama.
“Long day,” said Smart. “That was Ezekiel Elliott, wasn’t it?”
Yes, a reporter from Ohio replied.
“He tore apart what was a very talented Alabama defense,” said Smart.
Day didn’t join the Ohio State program until the 2017 season. But he’s maintained the program’s same explosive core approach. He’s also been recruiting at a high level: Ohio State has the third most talented team in the country, at 247 Sports Talent Composite, behind only Alabama and Georgia.
Last year, there was a feeling entering the playoffs that Georgia was headed for a rematch with Alabama if it didn’t falter against Michigan. The perception in some quarters this year may be that the tougher opponent is first, which may be a product of looking too much at pre-season perceptions. Either way, it would appear that Georgia would have to go through each of the ten major powers. If this year’s Georgia team repeats as the national champion, they’ll have it.
(Top photo by Kirby Smart: Steve Limentani/ISI Photos/Getty Images)